Almost as cautiously as he won success in the theatre and films during the Twenties, W. C. Fields won the hearts of American schoolboys during the Sixties. A curious idol. For he has become their beloved, not so much because they appreciate his comic art based on the years of work he spent practising juggling, perfecting his timing which is almost the whole of comedy, but because they imagine him to be a character like Quilp in Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Quilp fell on the floor rolling with laughter when he forced Sampson Brass to drink boiling rum and water. Fields is supposed to have pleasured himself by spiking Baby Leroy's milk with a possibly lethal dose of gin.
It is the word work in the above paragraph that makes the schoolboys' love affair with Fields suspect. Work is a dirty word in their vocabulary; and Fields is perhaps the only comedian who reveals, through his stately procedures, the passionate amount of work he put into his performance.
Many schoolboys write to me and come to see me. Most of them know only my name and have never seen any of my films. They approach me with wildly uninformed flattery after which, presuming me to be a forlorn old actress full of gratitude, they expect me to fill their arms with my most precious still pictures and sit three hours at the typewriter composing material which they will muck about, sign with their names and present to the teachers of their film classes.
Where Fields is concerned it does not take me long to learn that these boys have seen few of his films, and in discussing any of them they have great difficulty remembering its title or whether they saw the whole of it or an excerpted reel or two. The Fields they idolise is the man they read about and super impose on the Fields they see on the screen.
If, when I wrote my first film article in I956, I had known how many film biographies and autobiographies I would have to read in order to check my memories, I would have thrown my typewriter out the window before I became addicted to the writing habit.
In 1778 Samuel Johnson wrote: 'Pointed axioms and acute replies fly loose about the world, and are assigned successively to those whom it may be the fashion to celebrate.' In 1922, when I first arrived in New York, I heard every gag, joke and anecdote which, over the past fourteen years of reading, have brought me to a condition of nausea as I find them 'assigned successively' to film celebrities. There are two categories of celebrities fitted with appropriate anecdotes that writers and readers appear to dote on with foolish untiring enthusiasm. They are the tramp-type star delineated by her outrageous conduct, and the drunken actor whose cruel antics are termed hilarious. In the first category is the favourite anecdote about the star who goes into a smart restaurant clad only in a mink coat and a pair of slippers. Beneath the coat she is naked! The question is how is it known, her nakedness ? Does she do a strip-tease? In that case the management would swiftly bundle her into a waiting cab and every newspaper across the country would carry the story. Journalists refer to the mink coat anecdote as a 'possible' item because it could happen. It has happened but not to a star with the eyes of the press upon her. No documentation ever confirms this anecdote assigned to stars like Jean Harlow.
Thomas Gray said that 'Men will believe anything at all provided they are under no obligation to believe it.' In the second category of drunken actor anecdotes, out of the myths surrounding Irish wakes, writers have contrived an item so impossible that no film reader doubts it for an instant. This funny story tells about a bunch of drunks who steal the body of an actor friend from his casket in a funeral home and set it up in a chair in another friend's house, during his absence. Surprise! Surprise! I have consulted funeral directors and the police about this repulsive prank and find that breaking into a funeral home would immediately arouse the police and get the pranksters clapped into jail. It is not necessary to add that such a frolic with the body of W. C. Fields would attract the notice of the press.
Where two or three are gathered together in his name they do not waste time discussing Fields' films; they get right down to their 'favourite stories' about the 'little guy who looked life in the eye and told it where to go.' With more than forty years separating them from the Fields of the theatre and his unseen early films, his admirers must rely on the word of journalists like Roger Doughty, who writes, 'Fields' characterisation of a seedy, irascible, sharp-tongued drunk with a bulbous nose and an ice-cold heart made him a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies, George White's Scandals, Earl Carroll's Vanities and such films as Never Give a Sucker an Even Break and If I had a Million . . . in later years he jousted with Charlie McCarthy on Edgar Bergen's radio show.' The facts of Fields' character development are these: in 1923-24 he appeared on Broadway in the musical comedy Poppy. He played a small time bungling cheat, an affectionate father with no trace of drunkenness. William LeBaron saw Poppy, and when he became head of production at Paramount's Long Island studio he gave Fields a contract in 1925. If I had a Million was released in 1932. Fields worked on Edgar Bergen's radio show in 1937 and 1938. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was released in 1941.
Speaking of Edgar Bergen, another writer, Jim Harmon, quotes him as saying, 'Fields would be drinking in the morning, drinking at noon, drinking in the afternoon. But he never acted as if he were drunk.' On his own, Harmon goes on to call Fields 'a man of monumental pettiness and eccentricity, with a hundred categories of hatreds and dislikes.' What, I wonder, is the source of this line written in 1976?
Bernard Sobel was the press agent of the Ziegfeld Follies for ten years. He covered most of Fields' appearances in that show including his last in 1925. At that time Bill was a man of forty-six, completely formed as a comedian, completely set as a private person. Sobel in his book Broadway Heartbeat (1953), writing about Fields' distorted biographies, says, 'Hollywood made him an autocrat whose odd behaviour was matched only by his drinking prowess. Somehow, I can't believe that Fields let fame distort him.'
No, it wasn't fame that distorted Fields. It was sickness and the clutching fear of being discarded to die on the Hollywood rubbish heap. If he must play a nasty old drunk and be publicised as a nasty old drunk in order to work on the Edgar Bergen radio show, then so be it. He was an isolated person. As a young man he stretched out his hand to Beauty and Love and they thrust it away. Gradually he reduced reality to exclude all but his work, filling the gaps with alcohol whose dim eyes transformed the world into a distant view of harmless shadows. He was also a solitary person. Years of travelling alone around the world with his juggling act taught him the value of solitude and the release it gave his mind. He abhorred bars, nightclubs, parties and other people's houses. He seems to have left no diaries, no letters, no serious autobiographical material. Most of his life will remain unknown. But the history of no life is a jest.
The tragedy of film history is that it is fabricated, falsified in truth and in fact, by the very people who make film history. In the early years of film production, when no body believed there was going to be any film history, it was understandable that most film magazines and books printed trash which aimed only at fulfilling the public's wish of sharing a fairytale existence with its movie idols. But since about 1950 film has been established as an art and its history recognised as a serious matter. Yet film celebrities continue to cast themselves as stock types of nice or naughty girls, of good or bad boys whom their chroniclers (to quote Ortega) 'spray with a shower of anecdotes'.
The most heartbreaking of all these books is Mack Sennett's King of Comedy (1954), taped and written by Cameron Shipp. Except in superficial observations Sennett had not faith enough in his genius to risk a serious, luminous exposition of his world of comedy and the immortal grotesques who inhabited it. This world of universal laughter which was silenced by exclusion when the film corporations lengthened their feature films, filling out programmes with animated cartoons and newsreels. As a part of film history, as a person who was there, Sennett might have given readers the truth about the mysteriously manipulated scandals which destroyed two of his greatest stars: Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle. But he so abused dates and facts that, for the most part, his anecdotes are historically worthless. What he had to say about Fields' salary and drinking habits is simply a footnote to his own vanity.
Only one line in his book reminds me of the Mack Sennett I used to see in the Holly wood Roosevelt Hotel when I was living there in 1936. Almost every day from about noon he would sit in the lobby for a couple of hours, smoking his cigars, watching the people go by. He was then but fifty�one this big, healthy, wonderfully handsome and virile man. How could he have allowed him self to be discarded to die on the Hollywood rubbish heap? Although he spoke to no one, he was never bored. As he followed with keen and unembarrassed attention my flights in and out of the hotel, I wondered what thoughts lay behind the expressionless mask he wore in public. Now I know he was practising the art of paying attention. In his book, speaking of working for D. W. Griffith in New York, he says: 'I learned all I ever learned about making pictures by standing around watching people who knew how.' Anyone who has achieved excellence in any form knows that it comes as a result of ceaseless concentration. Paying attention.
I was in the Ziegfeld Follies with W. C. Fields in 1925. I was eighteen when I cabled Otto Kahn, the New York banker, begging him to rescue me from London where I was dancing the Charleston at the Caf� de Paris. He cabled Edmund Goulding, the future film director who was visiting his family in London, telling Eddie to pay my rent at 49A Pall Mall and deposit me on the S. S. Homeric sailing for New York on February 14th. Upon my arrival there, Ziegfeld, who had been looking for me ever since I disappeared from the chorus of George White's Scandals in September 1924, gave me a job in Louie the 14th, a musical comedy starring Leon Errol. It opened at William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Theatre in March 1925. The stage director of Louie was Teddy Royce (who died in England in 1965 at the age of 94). He was an elfin creature with snapping black eyes who whisked about on the coldest winter days dressed only in a tweed suit and a grey cashmere scarf wound around his neck. He detested all of Ziegfeld's spoiled beauties, but most of all me because on occasion, when I had other commitments, I would wire my non-appearance to the theatre. One day in June he called the girls together on stage after the Wednesday matinee. I came on last, standing inconspicuously at the end of the line on the right. Centred behind the orchestra pit stood Mr. Royce sipping his gin and water. After some vague remarks about the lack of discipline in the theatre, he looked sharply at me and said, 'Some girls in this show are using the theatre exclusively as a show case.' All the girls looked at me too and grinned happily. I was humiliated and insulted. I rushed to the little den under the stage box which Mr. Ziegfeld used for consultations and told him how Mr. Royce had publicly humiliated and insulted me. He smiled his charming silver fox smile and instantly transferred me to the Follies.
When I arrived backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre to start rehearsals for the summer edition of the Follies I asked Billy Shrode, the stage manager, for the number of my dressing-room. He looked at my make-up box, he looked at the call board upon which was posted a list of dressing rooms and their occupants, then he looked at me. 'To tell you the truth, Louise,' he said, laughing in spite of himself, 'I've asked them all and there's not a girl in the show willing to dress with you.' Having won no popularity contests with the girls in the Scandals and Louie the 14th, I received this news without comment. 'What the devil do you do to these girls ?' Shrode asked. 'I don't do anything to them.' 'Maybe that's it,' he said and turned back shaking his head at the dressing-room list.
The fierce status battles over theatre dressing-rooms have sometimes driven stars from shows and even closed them. The dressing-room situation in the New Amsterdam was peculiar in that, because of the city fire laws, it was the only theatre in New York sheathed in an office building. Off stage on the ground floor was the single star dressing room. Because Will Rogers came to the theatre wearing his cowboy outfit, carrying his lasso, and chewing his gum, ready to go on stage for his monologue, there was no problem about giving the star dressing room to W. C. Fields. Breaking all the other rules of protocol, Ziegfeld devoted the second floor to his show girls who, in case they missed the elevator, must not exhaust themselves walking down more than a single flight of stairs to the stage. The principals dressed on the third floor, the chorus girls on the fourth. On the fifth floor was another single dressing-room, a duplicate of the star's. Dorothy Knapp, Ziegfeld's most glorified beauty, dressed here alone. It was decided that I should share her glory.
We were a harmonious couple. Between Dorothy and me there was neither jealousy nor competition. For Dorothy, it was not enough, walking across the stage dressed in little except her breathless beauty and divine smile. Although her screen tests had been unsuccessful, she still yearned to become a movie star and took lessons in acting and dancing towards that end. For me, after dancing with Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn and Martha Graham, my little dances in the Follies were not enough. In May at Paramount under Herbert Brenon's direction, I had played with no enthusiasm a bit part in The Street of Forgotten Men. I wanted to be a show girl and do nothing. My moment of delight came at the end of the Follies when the whole company came on stage for the finale. Will Rogers and I climbed a ladder to the top of a fifteen foot tower set in the middle of the stage. Starting with a tiny noose on his lasso, Rogers would twirl it faster and faster, bigger and bigger until the rope hissed in a circle around us like an intoxicated snake as the curtains opened and the dazzling spot light shone upon us.
The fifth floor dressing-room lost its exclusive atmosphere when Peggy Fears, who had also transferred from Louie to the Follies, decided to become my best friend. She was a darling girl, with a sweet singing voice, from Dallas, Texas. Her smooth chestnut-coloured hair was untouched by dyes or permanent waves. Instead of the expensive gowns of a Follies girl, she wore schoolgirl sweaters and skirts. Perhaps it was her whimsical sense of fun that attracted her to me. And what could be more fun than Peggy, the most popular girl in the show, becoming friends with its most abominated member-me? One night she crashed our dressing-room carrying a Wedgwood teapot full of corn whisky and, knowing my literary pretensions, two disgustingly vulgar magazines�Broadway Brevities and The Police Gazette. A week later we were living together in the Gladstone Hotel off Park Avenue, where swarmed Peggy's friends until September when she went on tour with the Follies and I went into The American Venus at Paramount's Long Island studio.
It was through Peggy Fears that I came to know Bill Fields. Before the matin�e, at the Rosary Florist, she would select a bouquet to be wrapped in waxed paper and presented to Bill in his dressing-room. It touched his heart. Bill adored beautiful girls but few were invited to his dressing-room. He was morbidly sensitive about the skin disease which inflamed his nose and sometimes erupted on his hands, making it necessary for him to learn to juggle wearing gloves. After several devastating experiences with beautiful girls he had decided to restrict his choice of girl friends to those less attractive whom he would not find adrift with saxophone players.
Bill entertained Peggy and me with distinction. His bar was an open wardrobe trunk fitted with shelves, planted, as if it were an objet d'art, beside his chair. While Shorty, the silent dwarf who was his valet and assistant on the stage, went about pre paring our drinks, Peggy and I would dance around Bill who sat at his make-up shelf, listening to our nonsense with gracious attention.
I have never loved and laughed at W. C. Fields in films as I loved and laughed at him in the theatre. There are three reasons. First, in the theatre he was a make-believe character playing in a make-believe world. In films he was a real character acting in real stories. On the stage the crafty idiocy with which he attempted to extricate himself from ludicrous situations was unbelievably funny. The same idiocy attending the same situations on the screen gave his 'real' character sometimes a degraded, often a cruel and destructive quality.
Every night at the Follies, standing in the wings, I would watch Bill's Bedroom Sketch with Edna Leedom, and his Picnic Sketch with Ray Dooley.
The Bedroom Sketch opens in darkness. Bill and Edna are asleep in a double bed facing the audience. On Bill's side is a lamp on a night table; on Edna's side is a telephone on a night table. The telephone rings. Bill turns on the lamp, gets out of bed, sodden with sleep, his hair on end, wearing rumpled old white pyjamas. He trots round the bed in his little pink feet to answer the telephone. After mumbling a few words he says, 'Goodnight, Elmer.' Then looking down at Edna, who neither moves nor speaks, he adds, 'That was Elmer.' Bill turns out the light and gets back into bed. The telephone rings again. This time when Bill says, 'That was Elmer,' Edna sits up in a fury. She is lovely. Her blonde hair is in perfect order and her lace nightgown exposes her lovely bosom and arms. Her anger does not hide the merriment in her eyes and the dimples in her cheeks. While they fight over the identity of Elmer, nobody in the audience is expected to believe that Edna is Bill's jealous wife. The film International House (1933) contains a bedroom sequence played by Bill in the same old white pyjamas with another lovely blonde in an exquisite nightgown-Peggy Hopkins Joyce. But the realistic distaste with which she regards Bill spoils the fun.
In the Follies, Bill, as the father, played the Picnic Sketch with Ray Dooley as his small daughter. At that time, although Ray was twenty-eight with two children of her own, she had the face of an infant monkey and a body that fitted nicely into a baby carriage. Her squalling brats from two to six were brilliant travesties. She was not the usual aggressive child of the theatre. Up to the moment of an outburst she was a passive child following Bill's operations, her eyes glazed with anxiety. Making no sound she watched him break in the door of the unoccupied house upon whose lawn was spread the litter of the picnic lunch. He burst into the house outraged to find the door locked against honest tax-paying Americans, and came out in triumph with a paper bag filled with stolen food. It was not until he opened the can of tomatoes with a hatchet, squirting the red juice in his face, that she set up the howls which made him flinch and recoil and grab at his hat.
As the traditional obnoxious brat, a little boy, Mickey Bennett, played Ray Dooley's part in the picnic sequence of the film, It's the Old Army Game (1926). It was shot on the front lawn of the most lavish estate in Palm Beach, El Mirasol, the winter home of a J. P. Morgan partner, Edward Stotesbury. Not only was it the most improbable spot for a Fields picnic, but what the production unit did to the lawn was frightful. During the five days of shooting the litter converted it to a garbage dump; and when the trucks and forty pairs of feet finished their work it looked like the abandoned site of an old soldiers' reunion. But Mr. and Mrs. Stotesbury were thrilled. 'Everybody,' said Mrs. Stotesbury, 'everybody in Palm Beach is driving by to see what is going on here!' I was not in the sequence so she invited me to tea inside the villa. After I autographed a photograph for her young granddaughter whose name was also Louise Brooks, Mr. Stotesbury, a teetery but spry little man of seventy-seven, dressed in the costume of an 18th-century dandy, took me up to his library where he entertained me with a short concert on the drums.
My second reason for preferring Fields on the stage to Fields on the screen is that on the stage the audience saw all of him all the time. In 1925 when I was shooting The American Venus and he Sally of the Sawdust, I would go to his set to watch him work. He paid no attention to camera set-ups. For each shot he would rehearse the same business to exasperating perfection while Carol Dempster and D. W. Griffith sat bored and limp in chairs beside the camera. Long shot, medium shot, two shot or close up, Bill performed in each as if he were standing whole before an audience which could appreciate every detail of his costume and follow the dainty disposition of his hands and feet. Every time the camera drew closer it cut off another piece of him and deprived him of some comic effect.
Petrouchka is a comical marionette in Stravinsky's ballet until the very end when only his face is seen peering over the roof-top and the curtains close on a tragic note. Fields called Charlie Chaplin a 'ballet dancer' never deigning to study his film technique.
Having thousands of feet of close shots at his disposal, the film editor supplies my third reason for loving the stage Fields more than the film Fields. He never really left the theatre. As he ignored camera set-ups, he ignored the cutting room and he could only curse the finished film, seeing his timing ruined by haphazard cuts.
William LeBaron was responsible for attempting to divert Fields from fantasy to realism. Today it is assumed that Fields was a big box-office star in the theatre and in films. He was not. The largest audience he attracted was the radio audience of 1937-38 which listened to his unedited dialogue with another creature of the imagination, Edgar Bergen's dummy, Charlie McCarthy. But back in 1925 LeBaron believed that Fields could never achieve complete success without becoming a real person to the audience. Producing Marion Davies' films for William Randolph Hearst, LeBaron almost brought Marion to life in When Knighthood was in Flower (1922). With Little Old New York (1923), he produced her first hit in which, dressed in boy's clothes, she acted like a real girl. After seeing Fields play successfully a character part in the musical Poppy, LeBaron gave him a part in Marion's film Janice Meredith (1924). When he went to Paramount, he put Fields under contract. Between 1925 and 1938 LeBaron produced twenty-one Fields films. Yet it was only after Fields escaped realism and returned to his world of make-believe that he made his best films at Universal from 1938 to 1941. This is a puzzling fact considering that LeBaron produced all the exhilarant Mae West fantasies at Paramount, managing to neutralise her schemes to portray a real femme fatale, or, as Fields put it, 'a plumber's idea of Cleopatra'.
The first of five Fields films directed by Edward Sutherland was It's the Old Army Game. To shoot exteriors at the end of February 1926, Paramount sent the production unit to Ocala, an inland farming town in Florida. About six miles away was Silver Springs�'150 natural springs issuing from the porous Ocala limestone and flowing into a common basin. At eighty feet objects at the bottom are clearly visible.' The basin was filled with tropical fish, surrounded by tropical plants and flowers. This iridescent beauty was viewed from a glass-bottomed motor boat which Sutherland used for a love scene between William Gaxton and me.
The citizens of Ocala, hoping to make Silver Springs a rich tourist attraction, welcomed our company as a means of publicising their project. We were treated to so much Southern hospitality that the script got lost and the shooting schedule wandered out of sight. Nobody in Ocala seemed to have heard of Prohibition. And if ever there was a company that needed no help in the consumption of liquor, it was ours. Eddie Sutherland and Tom Geraghty (the writer) drank; William Gaxton, Blanche Ring, myself, the crew�everyone drank. Bill Fields drank his private stock apart with his girl friend, Bessie Poole, his manager, Billy Grady, and his valet, Shorty. We were a week over schedule, LeBaron was wiring 'All second cameraman's rushes tilted. What are you doing? Come home.', when Eddie decided that the picnic sequence absolutely must be shot on Mrs. Stotesbury's lawn.
Palm Beach was especially attractive that year because its millionaires decided that they absolutely could not get through the winter without their Follies girls. They provided Ziegfeld with the money to produce Palm Beach Nights, a small edition of the Follies. It was housed in an old assembly hall transformed into a night club with a full stage by the famous Viennese designer, Joseph Urban. Ziegfeld provided a choice selection of Follies girls including Paulette Goddard and Susan Flemming. And now every night, at the conclusion of Palm Beach Nights, our company (minus Bill Fields) contributed a floor show. Blanche Ring sang 'Rings on my Fingers', Mickey Bennett sang ballads in a piercing tenor, I danced, Eddie Sutherland did prat falls, and Billy Gaxton starred as the comedian. He and Rudy Cameron did their old vaudeville act, singing and dancing and telling bum jokes with violent self-approval. Then Gaxton appeared alone playing the violin. This was even worse than the vaudeville act. Trying to recapture the essence of Gaxton's impromptu comedy, I realise now that it was born of despair because he was funny every day too. When we did not work he was funny reading Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to me; when we worked he was funny about his make-up, always checking with the cameraman, Alvin Wyckoff, to see whether the scar on the back of his neck was well covered since 'That's all anyone sees of me.'
I knew that our parts as the 'love interest' in a Fields comedy meant nothing, but Gaxton had convinced himself that this first job in films would launch him on a successful new career allowing him to escape from years of mediocre vaudeville sketches. At best it was a mistaken act of friendship, Eddie's giving the part of a boy to a sophisticated actor of thirty-four. Billy Gaxton was so vulnerable, so proud of his good looks, his Spanish ancestry, his acting ability. When he became a great Broadway star in George Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing (1931), the deadly bitterness of this failure was exposed by the fact that he refused fabulous contracts, never making another film.
Not having seen It's the Old Army Game I know only that it did not make money. In 1927 when Eddie Sutherland directed his second Fields comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, Paramount's Long Island studio was closed, LeBaron had gone to FBO, and Fields was finishing his contract at the Hollywood studio. I was married to Eddie during the preparation and production of Tillie, which was the worst mess of film making that I have ever observed. Even Fields, who ordinarily did not enter the picture until shooting began, came to our house one afternoon to look into the story as it was told to him by Eddie and the writer, Monte Brice. I remember Bill sitting quietly listening and drinking martinis from Eddie's two-quart cocktail shaker; I remember him teasing me by dropping my fragile Venetian wine glasses and catching them just before they hit the floor; but I can't remember one word he said about the idiotic plot contrived for the remake of the film.
Mack Sennett's Tillie's Punctured Romance had been a box-office hit in 1914 due to the presence of Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. The title and the story had no value in 1927 when Paramount (which had bought all of Sennett's properties) sold the rights, along with the services of Fields and Sutherland, to Al and Charlie Christie. The Christie brothers had been making the popular Christie Comedies since 1916. They were kind, big men nearing fifty when the film corporations established the controlling theatre chains which eliminated the Christies' two-reel comedies as they eliminated Sennett's. Temporary insanity, brought on by the prospect of losing their company, their studio, and their Beverly Hills mansion, induced them to produce the six-reel Tillie with a Paramount release. It was filmed with groans, previewed with moans, shown in a few theatres and then buried in the vaults. Poor old Tillie had not a single mourner.
After a famous person dies his biographers feel free to give him a glittering list of intimate friends. Anecdotes are so much tastier spiced with expensive names. Bill Fields' list grows with every telling. So far as I know he had no intimate friends and loved only one person whose name, Paul Jones, is meaningless to practically everyone.
Paul Meredith Jones was born in 1897 in Bristol, Tennessee, a mountain village on the Kentucky border. In I922 he turned up at the Paramount studio and got a job as a prop boy. In 1962, when he retired from that studio, he left behind one of the finest records of a comedy producer known to Hollywood history. He had produced comedies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, with Hope alone; with Martin and Lewis, with Jerry Lewis alone; with Danny Kaye and W. C. Fields.
Paul was still an assistant director when LeBaron returned to Paramount in 1931 and began to groom him as a comedy producer. Although LeBaron was tall and grey and elegant and Paul was a small sandy-haired hillbilly, they had much in common. Both were serene, witty observers of the scene rather than participants; warm and friendly yet remote. Both were unpublicised, unknown in Hollywood society. But, whereas LeBaron functioned above the storm, he could send Paul to any set where insecure comedians were fighting with insecure comedy directors, and obtain peace.
Fields, Eddie and I first knew Paul when he was the second assistant on It's the Old Army Game. His walk alone, the way he came on the set as if he had ambled down the mountain to make a friendly call, was as soothing as a lullaby. Leaning on his cane, as relaxed as if he
were leaning over a rail fence, his narrow eyes twinkling in his long solemn face, he would listen to Bill and Eddie argue about the direction of a scene until they ran out of words. Then with some easy comforting remarks he would make them feel just silly enough to laugh at themselves. When it came time to shoot the scene the argument had settled itself-usually in Bill's favour.
Paul became first assistant on Tillie's Punctured Romance. That is when he became Fields' confidant. They had a bond. Women. Paul too adored beautiful girls who did not adore him. His handicap was his total distinction. He did not look or act or talk like anyone in Hollywood. Young girls were ashamed to go out with 'that little hillbilly'. He had fallen in love with a pretty extra girl, Doris Hill, and persuaded Eddie to give her a part in Tillie. During production she met Monte Brice and married him.
The last time I saw Paul was at his home in 1940. He had become a powerful and wealthy producer without changing a bit. He was married to his pleasant secretary, Julia, and they were living in an old-fashioned bungalow on an unfashionable street in Hollywood. I was soon to leave Hollywood for ever and Paul's stories and imitations of Bill Fields are the last happy memories I possess of that unhappy place. Especially Bill's plot to get rid of Bessie Poole. Bessie was a large, plump blonde who wore ruffled pink organdie dresses with matching hat, gloves, shoes and parasol. Her composure was indestructible. All Bill's suggestions that she should leave him for her own good were deflected with smiling contentment. Not being a cruel man, or a brave one, he designed a painless separation by means of a fictional business trip, taking Paul with him to San Francisco. Bessie saw them off, waving goodbye with her pink handkerchief to Bill and Paul standing on the observation plat form of the train. All the time Bill was waving and beaming and calling goodbye to Bessie he was muttering his horrid plot into Paul's ear. When they arrived in San Francisco he would telephone his lawyer in Hollywood, instructing him to present a generous cheque to Bessie and stuff her on the first train back to New York and the burlesque show. Paul knew, of course, that Fields would never have the courage to carry out the plot which seemed so feasible as the train was pulling out and he was calling, 'Goodbye Bessie, goodbye my dear-my little rosebud. Take care of yourself.'